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The Pagan Saviours:
Monograph Series No. 38
THE INSTITUTE FOR CULTURAL RESEARCH
Copyright © 2000 Cultural Research Services The right of Cultural Research Services to be identified as the owners of this work has been asserted by them in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved Copyright throughout the world No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical or photographic, by recording or any information storage or retrieval system or method now known or to be invented or adapted without prior permission obtained in writing from the publisher, the Institute for Cultural Research, except by a reviewer quoting brief passages in a review written for inclusion in a journal, magazine, newspaper or broadcast. Requests for permission to reprint, reproduce, etc. to: The Institute for Cultural Research, PO Box 2227, London NW2 3BW Monograph Series No. 38 This version prepared for free download 2006. The original hard copy edition: ISSN 0306 1906 – ISBN 0 904674 30 4 – Published 2000 may be purchased from the address given above, or on the ICR website, www.i-c-r.org.uk
and the later Christian fish symbol with the ‘age of Pisces’. why and how crossfertilization may have flourished. but that the essentials of Christianity were untouched. Their determination to fit this quart into a pint pot gave rise to tortuous arguments – such as attempts to equate the term ‘the Lamb of God’ with the ‘age of Aries’. early Christian fathers believed that the devil had imitated Christian ritual to lead people astray. With the decline of traditional Christian worship – just as the required objectivity became possible – interest has waned.THE PAGAN SAVIOURS Pagan Elements in Christian Ritual and doctrine Introduction This paper will examine similarities between pagan mystery cults current in Greece and Rome in the centuries before and after the birth of Christ. It is greatly to be regretted that many commentators brought baggage of their own to the debate. The extraordinary similarity has. the existence of Pagan ritual in the Catholic Church was one of the central complaints of Protestants – although this paper will seek to show that a fundamental similarity of doctrine with Paganism still exists in both Churches. and little study on the subject has been done at all in recent times. Hence. It will be noted that many of the concepts and rituals familiar to us today through Christianity have in their pagan context coherence and rationale – or some form of added dimension – which is not present in their Christian counterpart. It will look at the undoubted similarities between them and the developing Christian ritual. a school of ‘debunkers’ seized upon the same similarities to try to demonstrate that Jesus was a mere allegory and never existed. and that Christianity was. 3 . Later Christian commentators suggested – more convincingly – that perhaps there is a very narrow range of ritual to which human beings cleave. A further monograph1 will examine more deeply the historical context of early Christianity – to ask whether. therefore. During the Reformation. Or else they admitted there must have been cross-contamination. of course. In this monograph. The parallels between pagan and Christian ritual are obvious. the facts are allowed to speak for themselves. Around the turn of the twentieth century. in fact. nothing more than a pagan sect itself. been observed before.
but not to commit acts of fraud. apparently.’ 3 To understand the contrast between the ritual (or lack of it) known to the earliest Christians and the importance of both Catholic and Protestant ritual today we have to look at the historical context of the early church. which. written in AD 112: ‘They were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn. resurrected and redeeming god – whose origins go back into the pantheons of dimmest antiquity – is alive and well in one of the world’s major monotheistic religions. to sing antiphonally a hymn to Christ. Whether you believe they occurred as historical events at the time of Jesus or not. the first moment of December 25th. What they do demonstrate is the durability of ritual. It commemorates the sun god Mithras. and he was born of a virgin on December 25th. the sacrificed. For example. There they would study the sayings and teachings of Jesus – a teacher from an entirely different tradition: the Jewish monotheistic one. help to support and maintain it. Priests in white robes stand at the altar. theft or adultery. distinctive costume. by the Roman governor Pliny.J. at midnight. and the elements (raised emotion.and intrinsically interesting. as to a god. The congregation is here to celebrate the birth of their Lord God. not to refuse to return a deposit of called upon to do so. They also tell us something about the nature of human belief. When they had done these things they used to depart and then come together again to take food – but food of an ordinary and harmless kind. Boys burn incense. But Jesus Christ is not the name on their lips – when he was born this was already an ancient ceremony. Here is a typical account.. The temples are lit up. 4 . the reassuringly familiar combined with the striking and unusual). Shepherds were the first to learn of his birth . Condon puts it: ‘His worshippers believed he had come from heaven to be born as a man in order to redeem men from their sins.’ 2 This picture contrasts with the accounts we have of Christian ceremony during the same period – if ceremony is not too grand a name for the informal gatherings of Christians in the home of one of their members. It is the first century after Christ. As R.. long after the original rationale behind it has disappeared. not to falsify their word. and to bind themselves by an oath. it is striking that certain concepts fundamental to Christianity today predate him by thousands of years.. The Mystery Religions The city is Rome. not to some wickedness.
observed in Pagan Rome. Each great tradition poured its own cultural treasure – its own pantheon of gods. They had a complex and compelling mythology. but which sought to explain Creation and the order of the world. There has been much speculation as to the reasons. and from which they drew their converts. while out of Persia came the cult of the sun god Mithras. From Egypt. It seems beyond doubt that syncretism between the cults was commonplace as well – and there are many examples of depictions of gods and goddesses where the imagery has become so blurred that it is difficult to tell who is who and where often a hybrid is inferred. Although revealing the secrets of the various stages of initiation was strictly forbidden. We must examine the preoccupations of the early pagan cults and try to assess whether some of those too may have rubbed off on early Christian belief. occurs in a vacuum. They had secretive and emotionally-charged ritual – initiates could progress through successive stages and at each one further mysteries were revealed. They had hymns and prayers. More importantly. came the cults of Isis and Osiris. They had an imposing priesthood. which not only entertained and impressed. its own heritage of myth and legend – into an alchemic brew already seething with the riches of Greek and Roman civilisation. The Roman Empire in the centuries before the birth of Christ was a cosmopolitan melting pot of ancient civilisation. the foreign cults were tolerated. Their popularity with ordinary people was not surprising. the cults were not exclusive – and many people belonged to more than one. in which the early followers of Christ lived. which dressed in special garb and was held in awe by the congregation. There were notable similarities between the Pagan cults – from both the Eastern and the Graeco-Roman traditions. myths and legends are the 5 . Although frowned upon by the state. where the splendours of the Pharaonic tradition stretched back thousands of years.There is a Persian proverb ‘everything that goes into a salt mine becomes salt’. Three or four hundred years before Christ. would have coloured the way the religion was interpreted and understood by successive generations. It seems highly likely that the cultural and religious climate of the times. ritual and doctrine are to some extent inseparable. It could have been that they stemmed from the same ancient root in myths and ceremonies intended to produce success in hunting and early agriculture. Nothing. festivals and celebrations. They existed happily cheek by jowl with cults such as those of Attis and Adonis and a host of others. the ‘mystery religions’ penetrated Roman and even Greek society from the East. and gained huge popularity. including Christianity. It has often been pointed out that stories.
therefore. we may suggest that the principle of sacrifice to a higher power evolved for very similar reasons as magical practice: that is to obtain a desired effect. The pantheistic gods did not teach. For example. for example. a problem-solving strategy. Without presuming to plunge into what is at the current time a scholarly altercation about whether religion evolved out of magic or whether they developed side by side. Indeed Ovid sang: 6 . Furthermore. they were.common heritage of mankind – perhaps the only possession that has been freely shared among us from the dawn of human culture. and probably originated with early water worship. It is. combined with the use of the spring equinox and the winter solstice probably had its origins in the ceremonies which sought to explain the disappearance or ‘death’ of the sun every winter – and to ensure its triumphant reappearance the following spring. It differs fundamentally from the monotheistic concept of the god as law-giver – binding his followers to a complete set of moral values. Jesus proved himself willing to accept certain practices common to various cults. centred upon the Ten Commandments and the Law. baptism was widely used in the ancient cults.g. the concept of a sacrifice – to ensure a desired result (usually success in hunting or in crops) is an ancient one – stretching back to the dim and much debated crossover between magical and religious belief. Attis or Osiris) Propitiatory sacrifice – or self-sacrifice – of the god in order to redeem humanity Origins of Pagan Belief Some of these myths and rituals will be dealt with in much more detail under separate sections later in this paper. In more general terms. Central to the myths and rituals of these cults were: • • • • Striking nativity legends and celebrations Initiation rites – including ritual and spiritual purification such as baptism Mourning of the dying god followed by the ecstatic celebration of his resurrection (e. we can say that their content reflects their ancient roots. It has been pointed out by scholars that the birth and resurrection of the (sun) god. In previous monographs4 we have discussed the principles of magic and ritual as human problem-solving strategies. They carried no particular moral code in the way the Jewish tradition. Adonis.
whose single act of sacrifice has expiated the sins of humanity. He certainly would not have named the inconspicuous followers of a crucified Jew. even a world religion. the Sun God ‘Among the scores of religious sects that offered eternal hope or present ecstasy to the diverse peoples of the Roman Empire in the middle of the first century. Yet to this day emphasis is placed upon the doctrine of a divine Christ.’6 But there are indications that early Christianity viewed baptism rather differently to Paganism.‘From Greece the custom came. Mithras.’7 7 . It saw it as a rite that signified the beginning of a new spiritual life. Yet it is exactly this kind of individual responsibility which comes through very clearly in the actual teachings of Jesus preserved. to some extent. for example. had regenerative properties. contains both traditions. we see the concept of automatic cleansing and redemption through quasi-magical ritual – at the expense of an individual responsibility to uphold moral standards. Could Christianity have absorbed this doctrine along with the compelling ritual of paganism to which it was so central? Let us look now in detail at the cult of Mithras. Christianity was not conspicuous. asked which of these cults might someday become the official religion of the Empire. in the Gospels – as will be discussed in a further paper. as it were. therefore. Christ sanctioned it. since these sprinklings cannot repair your grammatical errors. they cannot repair either the faults of your life?’ In the preoccupations and outlook of the pagan cults. would perhaps have chosen Mithraism. As even church officers have allowed: ‘John the Baptist simply adopted and practised the universal custom of sacred bathing for the remission of sins. An impartial observer. the church inherited it. Christianity. and those of Isis and Osiris. Contrast with that the Pagan belief that the water itself would be instrumental in washing away sin – which is shown very clearly in a jibe by Diogenes at a case of baptism through sprinkling (also widely practised): ‘Poor wretch! Do you not see that. for Greece esteems Those free from guilt who bathe in sacred streams’5 Bathing in the god.
run by hellenized Magi priests. There is. in the Roman world. He later became associated with the sun. Sadly. in its day. where his association with light fitted him for a place in Zoroastrianism. however. the theoretical possibility that some ritual detail may have moved from Christianity into Mithraism. Mithraic ritual predated Christianity by some centuries. His birthday was December 25th. he passed to Persia. Looking at the very familiar ritual in a less familiar context. By the first century after Christ. mistakenly considered to be the winter solstice in 8 . What we know of Mithraic ritual is strikingly similar to Christian ritual today. the world is seen as a battleground between evil (darkness) and good (light). as we shall see. The roots of Mithraism stretched back into forgotten antiquity. By far the majority of sources (such as stone reliefs and contemporary references) date from after the Christian era. ancient and beautiful religion. detail from the very earliest days of Mithraism is scanty. Mithras’s clientele was mainly military. the cult enjoyed spectacular success. in Asia Minor. as a spirit of light and truth. therefore. About two hundred years before Christ. he became the focal point for a mystery cult. became a celestial warrior on the side of good. On the whole. This is believed to be the expression of a very ancient tradition dating from the time when mankind first realised that both light and fire could be created by striking a flint. and by the time it reached Rome was already elaborate at a time when the early Christians’ observance was simplicity itself. one has the feeling of rites which have ‘come home’. Nativity Legends The god – who wears a conical hat and is sometimes distinct from. when the cult arrived in Rome. followers flocked to this mysterious. and from his contact with Babylonian society picked up astrological aspects. he had made it to Rome. By some (later) accounts there are indications that he may have been considered born of a virgin. Mithras. Unsurprisingly. sometimes identified with the sun – is often depicted emerging from a rock at his birth. The first reference to Mithras is in a Hittite inscription dating to the fourteenth century before Christ. even Christian scholars agree that the drift was the other way. where he appears to be a god of light. Moreover. He is mentioned in the Rigveda. His first home was India.Who has heard of Mithraism today? Yet. In Zoroastrianism. From India. It was known as the ‘soldier’s cult’ – his followers were considered warriors for good. Mithraic doctrines make sense of ritual and terminology which raise questions within the context of a monotheistic faith. As the early Christians struggled with severe persecution.
out of death arose fresh life – a concept which lies at the root of all the ancient mystery religions. As The Catholic Encyclopaedia puts it: ‘As evil spirits ever lie in wait for hapless man he needs a friend and saviour. the Messiah was represented by Mithras himself. The Avesta speaks of a Messiah. from its blood came corn and animals. Creation/Redeemer In the ancient Persian Avesta. scorpion and serpent) to lap up the blood. by the time the cult had reached the West. Mithras often looks sad to be killing the bull – but he has been ordered to do so by the Sun. ‘When the dead rise again. While he is undoubtedly divine. But they failed. Mithras is the main adversary of evil whose ultimate victory is inevitable. (The wise men who attended Christ’s birth were Magi. Vermaseren says: ‘What is certain is that the bull-slaying was regarded as a beneficial and creative act. Stone reliefs show shepherds attending his birth.8 Many centuries later. Who is Mithras? Mithras is the mediator between god and man. When he plunged his dagger into it. As M. since it was done to benefit humankind. and the spilt blood spread over the earth and caused plants and animals to appear. Truth and Good will triumph over evil. death and rebirth as observed in the annual cycle of 9 . who will appear at the end of time. who sent the raven as his messenger.’9 Mithras is certainly a redeeming god – another common feature of Pagan belief. Mithras is ‘between gods and men – an intermediary’. Persian priests who placed Mithras at the forefront of their theology in his role as sun god). While there is no archaeological evidence of the myth of the star. for all concentrate on the same question of life. With his aid. it would fit well with the astrological tradition of the Magi associated with Mithraism. The power of evil may have also sent his emissaries (the ant. What we know of the myth behind this striking scene goes thus: Mithras was responsible for the fertility – and thus the salvation – of the world. when the living have become immortal [he] will make life glorious’. the Saushyant. He achieved this by slaying a bull.ancient times. On the rear wall of every temple devoted to his worship was a dramatic scene of Mithras slaying a bull – his most notable feat.
Mithraism resembles a myriad of pagan cults celebrating the renewal of life.’ The initiates believed that they would be born again by eating the flesh of a bull and drinking its blood – in the same way that life had sprung from the blood of the bull. Tertullian.nature. Persephone. an early Christian father. He added that the Mithraic initiates also enacted the resurrection of their god. pieces together the fragments of this ritual: ‘At sunrise the priests would announce “the god is born” then would come rejoicing. R. Ancient Persian texts say that the supreme god created a bull even before Gayomart. Adonis all perish to rise anew. in order to be resurrected. seeking to destroy creation – but grain and plants sprang from it. followed by a meal representing the last supper which Mithras ate with his disciples before his ascension into heaven. there is some evidence that Mithras himself was personified in the bull – he is occasionally referred to as such. the bull was supposed to have been slain – and the earth thus rendered fecund – at the threshold of spring. 10 . Eucharist Before end of his work on earth. The powers of evil attacked the bull. was seen as actually sacrificing himself for the benefit of mankind. Attis. Mithras had a banquet in which he took leave of his friend the Sun. In this respect. Another early Church father. in Our Pagan Christmas. the first superman. His worshippers celebrated a sacramental meal in commemoration of this. Interestingly. J Condon.’11 Not surprisingly. This meal inspired the greatest imaginable loathing in the eyes of the early Christians.’10 Reliefs in temples show the bull’s blood becoming corn. and he himself became the saviour. ‘The evil which Ahriman desired to achieve became in Mithras’s hands man’s salvation. It seems conclusive that on many occasions bread was substituted for the flesh of the sacred bull. before ascending to heaven. This hints that Mithras. Justin. a list of community expenses scratched on the walls of one temple include charges for meat and wine. in the guise of the bull. called the Mithraist meal ‘a devilish imitation of the Eucharist’. Mother Earth is entrusted with seed of corn and soon the golden harvest is reaped. But there is also evidence that wine replaced blood in some cases – for instance. says that bread and water were used.
A raised altar stood at the far end of the room. an elevated but sad expression and a halo.’13 Some form of baptism with bull’s blood also probably took place in Mithraism. The later Christian symbolism of the birth of Christ in a cave is an obvious match.. The sun. with benches on either side. which is shed for you. Adonis. Sunday was Mithras’s special day (it was. It reminds one irresistibly of the quite peculiar Christian terminology ‘with his blood. so that he will be made one with me and I with him. A long nave would run the length of the building. and no wonder. Sometimes he is seen running behind the sun god’s horse-drawn chariot. Mithras ascended to heaven in a chariot. probably for the lower grades of initiates. and was also dedicated to Apollo). the day of the sun. Sol. the same shall not know salvation. the Zoroastrian prophet who lived about a thousand years before Christ. In its most extreme form. (the Christians later went to the trouble of locating a cave in which Jesus was said to have been born. the initiate would be placed in a pit over which a bull was slaughtered. Sol’s resemblance to Jesus is quite arresting too: golden hair. There was a fracas when St Jerome discovered to his horror that it had originally been a shrine of another pagan god.’12 The equivalent in the Christian tradition is: ‘This [bread] is my body which is given for you . This cup is the new testament in my blood. First Zarathustra: ‘He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood. as befitted a god ‘born of a rock’.. Mithraic worship was always described as taking place in caves. Early Christian artists used the Mithraic carvings as a model to represent the soul’s ascent to heaven.14 Reconstructions of the Mithraic temples (actually often built of brick or stone) also show extraordinary similarities to Christian churches.A medieval Persian text published by Franz Cumont compares the words of Christ with the sayings of Zarathustra. he has washed us clean of sin. as the name suggests. furthest from the entrance. along the lines of Elijah’s ascent in a chariot of fire. is shown with a halo round his head. He would be quite literally showered with the cleansing blood of the bull-god. Dominating that wall was the 11 .’ Ascent to Heaven After his last meal. The scene is eerily familiar..
the saviour of mankind. Two quotations from a Victorian defender of Christian belief who was. the use of baptism.. would swear an oath not to sin or steal – and particularly not to reveal the secrets of the religious mysteries. from the same author: ‘What struck the Fathers about Mithraic practice was the close and obvious similarity of many of its rites to those practised by Christianity.. struck by the unmistakable parallels between the two sets of rituals will wind up this section. there are also notable differences.’ And. and which was current in the Roman Empire before the time of Christ.’ The Cults of Isis and Osiris We will now proceed to an examination of another pagan mystery religion which also predates Christianity. nonetheless. In some respects it was no unworthy opponent of Christianity. who were divided into seven ranks and who wore distinctive clothing corresponding to their level. The secrecy and mystery is one. in slightly jumbled order. They feature. the sealing of initiates. A central feature of the cult was the depiction of the goddess Isis holding the baby Horus – which certainly formed the model for later portraits of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. The cults of Isis. Strongly ethical in character. many of the elements with which we are familiar from Christianity. Those who wished to mythologize Jesus were swift to pick up the resemblances: 12 . Initiates. Osiris and Horus came from Egypt. Another is that Mithraism excluded women – a perhaps fatal weakness in the battle for followers with a host of cults. the promise of resurrection. The roof was generally vaulted. Horus.imposing depiction of Mithras slaying the bull. The sacramental meal of bread and water (or wine). it inculcated the exercise of the manly virtue in the unending struggle on behalf of righteousness against the powers of evil . such features as they could account for only by supposing that the devil had inspired a deliberate parody of divine ordnances. was born miraculously of Isis (his ‘father’ Osiris being dead at the time of his conception).. to represent the sky – and it was often decorated with stars. So effective was that oath that little is really known of their initiation practices. If there are striking similarities with Christianity. including early Christianity. In The Pagan Background of Early Christianity W Halliday admits: ‘At the zenith of its fortunes it was a serious rival [to Christianity].
the archetypal dead ruler. This identity was crucial to the succession of the living king in the Egyptian tradition. and his successor was the next Horus. Osiris was hung from a tree (a phrase often used in Greek to describe Jesus’s death by crucifixion). Osiris died – but the casket. like Jesus. who lived in the first century AD. the third god of this holy trinity. W. was murdered and later resurrected – after which he did not ascend. therefore. He had a casket made of exactly Osiris’s dimensions and promised to make a gift of it to whomever it should fit. He ruled well and justly. The successor. retrieved the casket and. in The Pagan Background of Early Christianity remarks: ‘The death and resurrection of Osiris as a very early nature god were celebrated each year in simple popular ceremonies at the time of the 13 . he became Osiris. Osiris is the great grandson of the sun god Re. leading some commentators to remark that. acted as the son Horus in the rites of burying the Osiris as in the legend and was thus recognised as legitimate king.’15 Osiris. but his jealous younger brother Seth wanted to kill him and engineered his death through a cunning stratagem. Isis searched for Osiris. the Horus king became identified with Horus. had set aside December 25th as the birthday of their gods. the resurrected Osiris made for the Underworld. although Seth discovered the body and cut it into 14 pieces. grew inside a tamarind tree. where the ruler was. As Angela Thomas says: ‘by the end of the old kingdom. R. for the ancient Egyptians. the son of Osiris.‘In the Egyptian temple would be found a crib or manger. but in some way one. where he ruled over the dead. moreover. He was early on associated with the Nile. Of course. Halliday. Hence when he died. until his death. centuries before the gospel Jesus. with the development of the worship of Osiris. He married his sister Isis and became king of Egypt. Perhaps somewhat ungratefully. seen as the embodiment of Horus on earth. but descended to become god of the Underworld. There is. she patiently collected them up and magically restored Osiris to life. a mystical identity between the father and son figures – they are two gods. with a figure of the infant Horus lying in it and a statue of his mother nearby. It was made into a wooden column for a palace of the king of Byblos. washed ashore.’16 The most complete account of the legend of Isis and Osiris is found in the Roman historian Plutarch. the gullible Osiris clambered in and Seth shut the casket and threw it into the Nile.
when the seed crop was sown and when the harvest was gathered. The crowd of worshippers joined with passionate emotion in the lamentations over the death of their god.’ The festivals included ‘mysteries’.’17 This doctrine was strongly reflected in the ritual of the cult of Osiris and other mystery religions. The concept of being ‘born again’ is very strong. This attitude would not have gone down badly with the Medieval Christian penitents who. As 14 . who appears pretty conclusively to be linked to attempts to ensure the smooth-running of the annual Nile flood and harvest. dramatic performances of episodes relating to the life. Horus. He eventually succeeded to his father’s throne – and thus saved the world from evil. The celebrations often involved the planting of seed in Osiris-shaped moulds to germinate and grow by the end of the festival. Horus was a falcon-headed god and. believing themselves born with a burden of sin.Nile flood. for the god is saved. The scene must indeed have been extraordinarily like that to be witnessed today in any church in Greece at Easter. brought life by growing food. was born secretly in the delta where she was hiding out from the evil Seth – a parallel with Herod. death and resurrection of Osiris. as befits the god of the horizon. who is sometimes depicted as being conceived as a ray of light through the ear of Isis. for example of some people being buried up to their neck in earth as a symbol of the grave. In the cult of Isis which was tremendously popular among women. Halliday goes on to add: ‘As in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox celebrations of the Passion and Easter. When he grew up he set out to triumph over his evil uncle Seth. performed similarly uncomfortable feats. For he shall be to you a Salvation from ills. most of which included an initiation – regarded as a death to sin and a rebirth. The process could be traumatic – there are accounts. ye initiates. there are suggestions of a strong element of penitence and a sense of personal sin requiring expiation. in a battle between good (light) and evil (darkness). when the still small voice (lentu susurru) of the officiating priest announced the glad tidings of his resurrection: “Be ye of good cheer.” “We have found him! We rejoice together!” was the jubilant cry which was raised at the culminating point of the ritual of the mysteries of Osiris. the Nile. They were symbols of the fact that Osiris. ‘The body of the god on whom one feeds’ thus providing eternal sustenance and the hope of eternal life. the dying god was often represented in effigy. he was shown with a sun disk on top of his head. Juvenal famously mocks a devotee of Isis. and burst into no less ecstatic joy. who crawls in mid-winter on bleeding knees to break the ice and then to immerse herself three times in the Tiber.
and could be initiated into the lower orders of several cults in infancy. All of them were proselytising individually. Wilkinson to suggest that the Truth of Christ was of such importance that it had been divinely revealed to primitive peoples centuries before his birth: ‘The sufferings and death of Osiris were the great mystery of the Egyptian religion and some traces of it are perceptible among other peoples of antiquity. and competing for the same clientele. He did it with remarkable efficacy.W. as the reader may by now begin to suspect. in a somewhat different order. converted into a mythological fable. The Osirian drama. As in other aspects of life.’ One is tempted to regard at least some of the similarities between the cults themselves as provoked by what must have been an intense rivalry. mourned and declared resurrected and ascended unto heaven.’18 Nor. were these themes by any means unique to the Egyptian mysteries.G. like Sir J. dated back certainly 25 and perhaps 35 centuries. the mother-child cult. This must surely have contributed to the pressure on the mystery cults to ‘put on a good show’. If God had given a preview. and the abstract idea of ‘good’. so beloved by the Egyptians. of course. to be brought back to life with the sprouting of the grain. the saving of the world. Smith. H. His being the divine goodness. The details are. So had Adonis been buried in a rocky tomb.has been noted before. They were disturbing enough to Christian apologists to provoke some. had died a violent death. this succession also contained an element of identification between Horus and Osiris. the average person was eclectic in belief. As it was. there were fads and fashions in which gods to worship. The temptation must have been severe for at least some Christians of pagan origin to ‘mix and match’. his resurrection and his office as judge of the dead in a future state look like the early revelation of a future manifestation of the deity. his manifestation upon earth. So had Hercules died and been resurrected at Paul’s home. the death and resurrection. but the separate elements make at least as much mythological sense as their Christian counterparts. One liturgical fragment found in Hippolytus seems to suggest that an actual ceremony of rebirth may have involved Horus – it contains an announcement that the goddess has borne a holy son. says in Man and His Gods: ‘For centuries the people of the Mediterranean had annually observed the death and resurrection of their gods. Thus we have the trinity of gods. Tammuz too. or at least to adhere to some 15 .
and oft-times. when we do but relate of him stories similar to what the Greeks relate of Hermes and Perseus?’19 Although Justin could be quite acerbic about poor Perseus as well: ‘When I am told that Perseus was born of a virgin. Unsurprisingly. Early Christian apologists bolstered their claims for the reality of Christ’s virgin birth by referring to the widespread belief that animals could conceive from air. Jesus. let us examine some of the common factors across a huge number of pagan religions. prophets and gods were unlikely to be taken seriously unless equipped with a wonderful life. rather indignantly asks: ‘Why are we Christians alone of men hated for Christ’s name. Nativity The richness of shared mythology has been several times referred to in this paper. Julius Caesar and the emperor Alexander share the same distinction of conception by a virgin. Wonderful stories and legends were property common to all.’ Nonetheless. time and again. provided they kept up their other devotional commitments. plagiarism bore no stigma. Justin argues that it is unfair that Christians are stigmatised for claiming for Jesus the same sorts of distinctions enjoyed by the pagan gods: 16 . Before we conclude. virgin birth was a common theme.’ Justin Martyr. His own nephew Speusippus told the story in somewhat similar terms to those found in the gospel of Matthew. who died 347 BC. and gulp down the light airs.of the dramatic ritual they held so dear. Plato. and whose own gods and goddesses had no objection to their taking on a new god. without marriage union – marvellous to relate – they are made pregnant by the wind. turning their mouths to the Zephyr. was believed. like the mares in Virgil’s Georgics who: ‘When in springtime the warmth returns in their bones. I realise that here again is a case in which the serpent and deceiver has imitated our religion. stand all on the top of the rocks. very soon after he died. the early Christian apologist. to have been born of a virgin. Heroes. Once a good tale was in circulation it was apt to be pressed into service whenever the occasion demanded.
onto the shoulders of the god/sacrifice was laid the collective burden of sin of the entire populace. After his death he was said to have turned into a pine tree. Mention may be made here of Attis – the saviour god born of the virgin Nana (she conceived miraculously by putting a ripe pomegranate into her bosom). Whether or not this theory entirely stands up to the rigours of modern research. a great festival was held on March 22nd for Attis and Cybele. overtones of the propitiatory sacrifice in the Christian crucifixion story do seem to resonate in phrases such as ‘he died to atone for our sins’.’ Resurrection/Crucifixion The great Victorian founder of comparative religion. who reigned between 41 and 54 AD. Men’s minds were already full of similar beliefs. His story and rites 17 . In Rome. Frazer says the emperor Claudius. His legends predate Christianity by some centuries. he suggested that in early agricultural religion. Conybeare remarks in Myth. incorporated the already ancient worship of Attis into the official state religion. of course. and that he raised the dead. In the other. At the same time. on March 25th.‘When we tell you that Jesus healed the halt and paralytic and the maimed from birth. he argues. the death of the god represented the death in autumn of vegetation. What we can confidently state is that the theme of the sacrificed or selfsacrificing god is a pervasive one in pagan mythology. In this version. She was the goddess of fertility. his lover who was also said by some to be his mother. in effect a propitiatory sacrifice. after which. he castrated himself under a pine-tree and bled to death. propounded the theory of the divine scapegoat. A pine tree was cut down and treated as a great divinity.C. Sir James Frazer. There were three days of orgiastic rites. Magic and Morals: ‘Such passages aid us to understand the rapid spread of the belief in the Virgin-Birth and Resurrection. the resurrection of the god was celebrated with wild joy. There are two versions of his death: in one Attis was killed by a boar. the elements of self-sacrifice and the tree (cross) resemble the Christ story. the symbol of winter. you will see that here too we merely repeat things said to have been done by Asclepius. and the ground prepared for their reception. ahead of its triumphant rebirth in the spring – and that this rite was played out with a human or animal acting the part of the dying god. Briefly. It was swathed like a corpse and the effigy of a young man tied to the trunk.’20 F. The Christians claimed acceptance of their myths because the pagan religion was already full of similar ones.
the spirit of the corn and these rites reflected the death and resurrection of the harvest every year. Aesculapius the Greek god of medicine and son of Apollo. Every day his liver was pecked out by an eagle. Imhotep and Serapis of the Nile were all efficacious healers – as were Ishtar and Marduk of Babylonia and Astarte. Isis. Healing was a particular attribute of divinity.were so similar to that of Adonis. a saviour had to contend with a host of gods and goddesses who made the miraculous ‘par for the course’. Tammuz. Miracles Likewise. in fact. the Syrian sun god dating to a thousand years BC was also a saviour who rose from the dead. and every day it regenerated. As W. it is easy to infer that early Christianity found itself facing stiff competition where miracles were concerned. In order to impress in the pagan world. your lord restored. that the two were sometimes associated. even in the ancient world. the insane and the deaf and dumb. healed the leper. Trust ye in your risen lord. much of which predates Jesus by hundreds of years. For the pains which Tammuz endured Our salvation have procured’ 21 Prometheus. Horus performed great miracles. The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviours states that his burial and resurrection was acted in pantomime in Athens five hundred years before the birth of Jesus. ye saints. who dates to the sixth century BC made men out of clay and quickened them to life with fire stolen from heaven. Halliday says: 18 . Conclusion The similarity between Christian ritual and the rich and varied pagan mythology. In The Golden Bough Sir James Frazer argues that Adonis was. the Phoenician moon-goddess. so he could suffer his punishment over again. Thoth restored the eye of Horus with his spittle. including raising the dead to life. In around 400 BC Ctesias records in his Persika a poem concerning Tammuz which sounds uncannily like a Christian hymn: ‘Trust. He was chained by Zeus to Mount Caucasus in punishment. has led scholars to a fairly unanimous conclusion that borrowing of ritual took place to some degree.
that once given life. There is. a fundamental similarity of idea in the celebration of a commemorative sacramental meal. whether it be performed by Mithraic initiates or by Christians. but merely takes on new form within the most unexpected hosts. the Holy Trinity. runs the argument. in the sense of purely fortuitous accident. The preaching of Jesus. say.’22 Later Christian commentators argue that this ritual is not central to the Christian belief and often proclaim that the difference between pagan and Christian systems was in the personality and teaching of Jesus. More importantly from the point of view of this document. had no relation whatever to Hellenism. It underscores. But ask Christians today to name. no form of human idea ever seems to die out completely. 19 .‘We admit. something more than coincidence. his glorious Nativity. his dying for our sins. the four or five central aspects of their faith and how many will talk about the Resurrection. as indeed we must. Jesus as the son of God. in some degree. in the most dramatic way possible. how many will discuss his actual teachings? Yet the former are exactly the aspects which we have seen fit rather more comfortably into a pantheistic context than into a monotheistic one. the exercise provides a kind of dynamic snapshot of the tenacity of ritual belief.
21. Condon. chapter 24. Jerome. 12. 2000. The Pagan Background of Early Christianity. chapter 22. 10. 20. Forgery in Christianity. Halliday. 17. the Rev J. Magic and Morals. The Role of Primitive People in Identifying and Approaching Human Problems. Ad Paulinum. 18.89 quoted in Vermaseren. Ibid. Magic and Sorcery for Power and Hunting. W. 22. Quoted in Jesus the Pagan Sungod. 3.P. Egyptian gods and myths.7 4. The World’s 16 Crucified Saviours.96. cit. A. Fasti. The Use of Omens. Mithras. the Secret God. 8. Thomas. 2. St Luke. 15. M. Wright. All Institute for Cultural Research. Myth. Epistle 58. 19. First Apology. 5.J. 7. quoted in Halliday. 20 . Firmicus Maternus. Lundy. Ibid. 10. quoted as above. Diodorus. L. Letters. quoted in Bible Myths. 11. The Writings of St. First Apology. 19.Notes 1. 59.. 7. Institute for Cultural Research. W. Vermaseren. London. 9. Paul. Quoted in Graves. Our Pagan Christmas. Quoted in Wheless. R. lines 58–9. Book ii. iii. the Pagan Sungod. Ritual from the Stone Age to the Present Day. quoted in Conybeare. 6. Op. 13. London 1998. Zamyad yasht. The Pagan Background of Early Christianity. Meeks. The Marketing of Christianity: The Evolution of Early Christian Doctrine. 16. 22:19–20 14. Jesus.
H. Jesus the Pagan Sun God. Fairview Books. James. 1892. 1959. 1910. Liverpool and London. T.W. Our Pagan Christmas.J. London. A. Magic and Morals. Shorter. A. J. 1948. London. Myth. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt. Conybeare. Myth and Symbol of Ancient Egypt. R. Halliday. London. 1952. R. 1983. Thomas. 1996. H. W. 1937. London. E. Weigall. Frankfort. 1969. L. Spence. The Paganism in Our Christianity. The Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt. Shire Egyptology. The Pagan Background of Early Christianity. London. Condon. London. Mithras. 1995. Vermaseren. 1925. F. Pakkanen. 1961. Wright. Athens. 1974. The Egyptian Gods. Smith. 1928. K. USA 1875.C. Man and his Gods. H. M. The World’s 16 Crucified Saviours. London. London. the Secret God. London. Angela. New York. Interpreting early Hellenistic Religion: a study based on the cult of Isis and the mystery cult of Demeter. New York. Lewis. A. Petra. Dean. Egyptian Gods and Myths. W. Early Christianity and Paganism. Paganism Surviving in Christianity. Hornung. 21 . Graves. 1963. Ancient Egyptian Religion.Bibliography Clark. 1986. USA.
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